I'm trying to figure out why exactly the argument from tolerance fails. What I've come to so far is that to practice relativism means to see a cultures morals from a standpoint that of a person within the culture, while tolerance is understanding that cultures morals differ, and not holding subjective opinions against it. What would cause this to fail?

  • 4
    Because it contradicts itself:"Cultural Relativism would certainly say that the person from a tolerant culture ought to be tolerant. But it would also say that a person from an intolerant culture ought to be intolerant. And with the very same force that we in our culture might be required to be tolerant, others should be intolerant.", see Applied Sentience blog. Tolerance has to be made into an absolute value over and above cultural differences, but this is inconsistent with relativism about values.
    – Conifold
    May 7, 2017 at 19:09
  • it's not the argument from tolerance that fails, it' the argument for cultural relativism. the latter doesn't work, the former does. Tolerance can be a core principle of a dominant culture without contradiction.
    – user20153
    May 7, 2017 at 20:30
  • 1
    Tolerance of what? Should everything be tolerated? When you start defining what should and shouldn't be tolerated, the concept becomes subjected to those definitions such that it takes on more of an auxiliary role rather that what might be called a core principle. For that reason, it's kind of an absurdity of modern culture that it's become such an exalted watchword. Tolerance has its value, of course, but only when it brought into the context of a more definitive system of ethics.
    – user3017
    May 7, 2017 at 21:04
  • I don't think you're defining Tolerance correctly -- at least that's not how Locke defines it. Tolerance requires the conjunction of (a) a belief someone's view or behavior is wrong and (b) a belief that freedom or some other value makes it so that rather than extinguishing it that one should permit it even though one could prevent it.
    – virmaior
    May 8, 2017 at 6:41

4 Answers 4


I parse the question into this: why cultural relativism (CR) cannot be justified from the standpoint of tolerance? For this, let's first clarify what CR is. CR can be descriptive or prescriptive. As a descriptive idea, CR states the observation that morality is relative to each culture. As a prescriptive, moral theory, CR asserts that morality must be founded on each culture. All moral values are nothing more than customs, social norms and/or legal practices. I focus on this moral theory side of CR in this post.

As a (prescriptive) moral theory, CR is already very problematic, CR as a moral theory is based on the so-called naturalistic fallacy (inferring what one ought to do from what one is). Also, under CR, a moral revolutionist (like M.L. King) becomes a common criminal. CR cannot explain why stoning couples for marrying across different castes is wrong. Indeed, CR can defend any clearly morally wrong practice insofar as the practice is the norm in the society. Consequently, CR cannot offer guidance for moral progress. For this reason, no moral theorists are motivated to defend CR.

Setting aside the fact that CR is an inadequate moral theory, can CR be defended nevertheless for the reason that it is based on the value of tolerance? Surely, tolerance has some goodness going on. Like individuals, each culture has its own idiosyncrasies due to existential contingencies. Many cultures around the world find it offending when some globally dominant culture judges their cultural norms as morally wrong or inferior. Not exercising tolerance can be viewed as imperialistic or paternalistic.

Does this means that CR can be justified from the standpoint of tolerance? If tolerance is an intrinsic value, then CR can be, but it is not. Tolerance can be good or bad. While we should be tolerant towards differences in general, there are times when being tolerant borders on acting cowardly: e.g. tolerating a bully. Tolerance is valuable when it serves some higher values. John S. Mill, for instance, argued for tolerance for the sake of liberty, which he viewed as a source of human happiness (cf. David Brink's Mill's Progressive Principles). John Rawls argued for tolerance (through epistemic modesty and neutrality on the good) to show the ideal of equal respect. Since tolerance itself has no steady foundation, CR justified by tolerance will be even more unstable, which is why the argument from tolerance to CR fails.


One of the more interesting and difficult philosophical problems we face with this kind of question is the unfortunate tendency to flatland terms like 'tolerance'. The word 'tolerance' has a strong ethical cachet; it is often treated as a mono-dimensional moral good without reflection on what it is that we are expected to be tolerant of, and this can lead to a form of cultural relativism that is effectively moral relativism. The flatland version of tolerance is problematic; it does in fact fail because it creates practical and ethical paradoxes. The question is whether there are more dimensions to the term than we commonly recognize.

With that in mind, let me note the one dimension on which tolerance is essential. Without tolerance of some sort, communication becomes impossible. If we assert that a group or its actions are intolerable (for whatever reasons) then we automatically shut down any possibility of connecting with that group or discussing its case. We draw a line in the sand that we will not cross except to fight, and throw away any opportunities for diplomacy. This was the case in the Southern US during Jim Crow. Blacks were separated out — their presence in public spaces was considered intolerable, even though it was mandated by Federal law — and there was no possibility of resolving the issue through discussion. This led to the Civil Rights movement: protests and lynchings and defiance and arrests; all of the non-verbal communications of insurrection and suppression. To this day there are those who find blacks intolerable in public spaces, but the main effect of the Civil Rights movement is that blacks are now secured a place at the discussion table, and it's through that ongoing public discussion that blacks have been moving more and more into the US mainstream.

This effect becomes more pronounced when dealing with foreign cultures — US blacks, for all that they were alienated, were clearly part of US culture — but the same principle applies. It boils down to a distinction:

  • Showing tolerance to the group itself, for the sake of keeping lines of communication open
  • Showing intolerance to particular acts the group might perform, as they offend our own moral sensibilities

Maintaining this distinction allows us to discuss the acts we find intolerable with the group in question, and discussion allows us to gradually create a new ethical standard together with the other group that will give some relief to those intolerable positions. Thus, for an obvious example, it's well known that certain cultures traditionally eat canines, which most Americans — who think of dogs as beloved pets — find intolerable. Over time this has worked out so that people of those cultures in the US do not prepare dog meat, and Americans overseas do not complain about the practice, and in the future we can expect that the practice will disappear overseas or that Americans will grow accustomed to it domestically. But in any case, by separating out the intolerable act as a mere practice that is not part of cultural identity, we create a ground for eventual consensus.

On the other side of this coin, consider how certain people and groups in the US have gone out of their way to identify Muslim culture with intolerable acts (usually intolerable acts towards women). The argument generally runs that the degradation of women is an integral part of Islamic law, so there is no point discussing anything; all we can do is show intolerance to Islam as a whole. It's no use pointing out to these people that prior to the sexual revolution women in Christian nations were not much better off than women in Muslim nations; it's no use noting that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide do not practice the strict segregation of Islamic fundamentalism, and acclimate well to Western liberal (quasi-feminist) principles. The expressed intolerance of Islam as a group closes the door on any act of communication that implies even mild tolerance, and precludes the possibility of reaching some new ethical standard acceptable in both cultures.

If we do not make this distinction between cultural identity and cultural practices, then our only options are moral (cultural) absolutism or moral (cultural) relativism. But by making this distinction and giving the term 'tolerance' some philosophical depth, we find the capacity to shift cultures into alignment without destroying one or the other outright.

  • This is a nice stab at resolving the dilemma. And I love the notion of finding a "capacity to shift cultures into alignment without destroying one or the other outright." But as to your dog eating example, Do you really trust that "in the future we can expect that the practice will disappear overseas or that Americans will grow accustomed to it domestically. Either it stops overseas or we will take it up? This certainly has not been the case with cows and pigs, which we eat while many "overseas" do not...
    – gonzo
    Mar 21, 2020 at 18:31
  • Which goes to the heart of "tolerance" and adherence to the absolute values of identitarian epistemology, diversity, and inclusive multiculturalism that form an integral part of the West's current ethos, in that that they have essentially become indubitable Wittgenstein hinges. In such a world, where folk immigrate not with the intention to assimilate [ala melting pot), but with the idea of maintaining their cultures and practices intact, and the expectation that their group identities be recognized and dignified.
    – gonzo
    Mar 21, 2020 at 18:45
  • All of this bears some relationship to the epistemic slippery slope I addressed in a recent posting. Will we in the not too distant future, be justified, for instance, in outlawing dog eating, clitoral mutilation, the stoning of libertine females? Which goes to the heart of your distinction between types of tolerance, which in turn assumes that people will only insist upon consuming canines while "overseas." A time will come, given above described ethos' "hinges" that they will be justified in insisting that they be allowed to such consumption here.
    – gonzo
    Mar 21, 2020 at 19:00
  • @gonzo: what I was suggesting — and I'll be blunt here — is that there are only two ways to resolve intolerable acts: (1) destroying one culture utterly, or (2) maintaining a level of tolerance for each culture that allows the intolerable act to be discussed and addressed. The first is perhaps easier: it's what China is currently trying to do with the Uyghurs and Myanmar with the Rohingya. The second is more difficult, and riskier in the sense that it calls for a certain amount of change on both sides. Mar 21, 2020 at 19:42
  • @gonzo: one can not tell what the outcome of an ethical discussion will be. It's clear that Liberal societies will never accept cliterodectamy or death by stoning for minor offenses, but those are extreme acts advocated by small segments of the Islamic world. They are hardly integral to Islamic culture, and not even integral to the tribal groups that practiced them culturally long before the arrival of Islam. If we want to take the effort to be surgical, we can work on eliminating the practice by building ties with the culture. If we don't, we can only destroy it, or turn a blind eye. Mar 21, 2020 at 19:51

There is an issue of scale. This is a perfectly good political value. As an ethics, it is beyond human capacity.

Tolerance is a reasonable thing for a legal system to have. For people, it is an obnoxious thing. It readily falls apart into two different things: 1) acceptance, or 2) passive aggression.

We cannot 'tolerate' an alternative view without knowing it is wrong and therefore considering it lesser, which undercuts our ability to truly deal with the holder as an equal. So what we are really doing is passive aggressively refusing to act against something we actually actively disagree with. We can agree to disagree right up until it matters, at which point we have to either accept or deny it, in order to move forward. Meanwhile, that puts us in a false relationship that requires a lack of authenticity in order to avoid the issue.

There is no argument that a legal system anchored in some larger cultural value cannot be tolerant, up to the brink of logical consistency. But true cultural relativism between individuals is not psychologically tenable. We can legitimately accept their right to live out their principles, or we cannot. Tolerating them until they clash with ours is just evasion.


I’m just passing by, and I really like “Nanhee Byrnes PhD”s answer. I would like to make a couple of offhand comments.

As a starting point… the whole “Postmodern” oeuvre is appallingly bad. Getting rid of reality, logical thought and meaning is really not a good idea.

What I want to say is that, to do philosophy properly or well, one must (philosophically) adopt one’s opponent’s view, and find some way of either showing that their beliefs are incoherent, or finding some more fundamental tenet that they would concede, that is inconsistent with their beliefs.

Here, CR is an appallingly difficult beast to kill. (How do you find any common ground with someone who rejects reality, meaning and thought?)

From my point of view, killing people for marrying across castes is morally wrong. My acquaintances would agree. However, the CR tenet is that, if I were an Indian, I would think that that was morally right. Similarly, the CR-ist might say that a moral revolutionist can not be taken as external to their society (not meaning to imply that that is a clever and good argument).

The idea of “tolerance” is that it would be misguided to judge another culture from outside, since, if one were inside that culture, one would now not think they were wrong; tolerance is not a clever moral position; it is just a self-evident approach to other cultures. We in the West talk about “tolerance” as though it were a moral principle used in dealing with those weird people. The CR-ist would argue that they are not talking about tolerance.

As a non-PM-ist [anti-CR], I take CR as descriptive or prescriptive — I observe from outside that {the idea that other cultures have different moral beliefs} is merely descriptive… and over here we have a proper ethical system. To a CR-ist, it [“{…different moral beliefs}”] is a raw fact about how the world is, such that setting a prescriptive against it is grossly naïve; one might just as well argue that one should not fall.

I suppose that the point is that, when arguing against CR, one must be aware of whether or not one is trying to argue from within or from without… and, if one is arguing from without, one must beware of simply arguing that you are wrong because I am right.

[ Parenthetically, as an aside… in real life, modern young people (read “PM-ists”/“CR-ists”) have a strong tendency to make this very mistake — they tend to reject other views just on the grounds that they disagree with their own. (We all tend to do this, but it is especially poor when the root tenet was that everyone else is right too.) ]

I do think that arguing from moral intuitions is a decent approach. However, in a pitched battle with a CR-ist… their view would be that that is a Western notion. (One can (successfully) argue that moral intuitions are indeed shared; the point is that one can not just presuppose this as common ground.)

Finally… as a grand meta-comment: although normally it is proper philosophy to adopt one’s opponent’s view… that is not a good idea when that view rejects reality, meaning and logic; it is like using a sci-fi brain machine to understand a mad person. It is sufficient to observe that the person is mad. (I am serious; you will wreck your brain if you try to think in such terms.)

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